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Hotly contested southern NM races in spotlight

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – Southern New Mexico Republicans who played a key role in a historic GOP takeover of the House two years ago are now defending their seats against challenges from Democrats who want to retake control.

At least three races for southern New Mexico House districts are being watched closely by political insiders, along with a hotly contested Senate race in Las Cruces between Republican Lee Cotter and Democrat Jeff Steinborn, who is leaving his House seat to run for the Senate.

There’s also an element of familiarity as candidates in at least two races are going head to head for the third time.

Democrats say they believe the higher voter turnout typically generated during a presidential election year will benefit their side.

“The electorate that will vote in this 2016 presidential election year will look different than in 2014,” said Steinborn, who is challenging Cotter in Senate District 36. “I think we will see turnout that will help Democratic candidates.”

However, Republicans say their bid to finish work begun after they won a majority of seats in the House in 2014 – for the first time in 60 years – is resonating with voters.

“The failed policies of the Democrats is why we are in the shape that we are in in this state today,” said Rep. John Zimmerman, R-Las Cruces, who is trying to win re-election to the House District 39 seat he took from Democratic challenger Rodolpho “Rudy” Martinez of Bayard in 2014.

“We’re not going to correct it in two years,” Zimmerman added. “They continue to fight us tooth and nail. We passed a few (reforms), but we haven’t gone far enough.”

Candidates for both political parties largely agree on the top issues for voters in southern New Mexico: the economy and education.

But Democrats and Republicans in the region disagree on how best to foment economic development and reform the state’s struggling schools.

New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates and has struggled to keep up with neighboring states in terms of job creation.

And in response to a precipitous revenue downturn caused by falling oil and natural gas prices, legislators adopted a $371 million budget-balancing package that relies on spending cuts and one-time fixes during a contentious seven-day special session that ended Oct. 6.

Although crime-related issues have dominated the headlines in Albuquerque recently, especially the rape and killing of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, southern New Mexico candidates on both sides of the political spectrum emphasized that they believe voters are more likely to hang the election on concerns about the economy and education.

Here’s a look at key southern New Mexico races:

House District 39

Republican Zimmerman won House District 39 from Martinez, the former mayor of Bayard who held the seat for eight years through 2014. District 39 encompasses Silver City, a large swath of mining and ranching country in Grant County, and a slice of Las Cruces.

To stimulate economic growth, Zimmerman said he supports so-called right-to-work legislation that would mean non-union employees would not have to pay union fees as a condition of employment. Though union membership cannot be required under federal law, such fees can be mandated under contracts in unionized workplaces.

He also wants to end “social promotion” of third-graders who can’t read at grade level, instead holding some of them back a year, and to reduce state environmental regulations.

Martinez cited “excessive testing” of students as one problem to fix in New Mexico’s school system, and said he wants to see increased support for small business and investment in renewable energy industries to increase economic development.

“Certainly, we recognize that our education system right now is not making any gains as far as outcomes, such as graduation rates,” Martinez said. “As I go door to door, that seems to be the top issue that comes up. That, and jobs and the economy. If we don’t create jobs, then the economy suffers. Those are things that people are concerned about, especially those that are unemployed.”

House District 36

Former Las Cruces City Councilor Nathan Small is taking on Hatch Mayor Andy Nuñez for the House District 36 seat Nuñez has held for more than 12 years – over two separate stints.

Nuñez, a Republican who previously served in the House as both a Democrat and an independent, is a retired New Mexico State University educator and a pecan farmer; Small, a Democrat, acts as wilderness protection organizer for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

House District 39 includes an urban patch of Las Cruces, but consists mostly of the rural area between the city and small farming town of Hatch, encompassing much of New Mexico’s green chile- and pecan-growing country. “I tell everybody I’ve been in this business a long time,” Nuñez said. “The big thing is our water problems. If we don’t have our water problems resolved, we won’t have development. If you don’t have water, you can’t have agriculture.”

To boost economic development, Small said he wants to end some “special interest tax breaks and handouts at the top,” and propose greater “investments in workforce training, tax fairness and support for small business.”

On education, Small said, “Whether it’s third-grade flunking, singling out teachers or school personnel for blame, that system is hurting students’ success.”

House District 37

For a third consecutive general election, Democrat Joanne Ferrary of Las Cruces is running against Terry McMillan, a Republican. Ferrary came up short in her first two bids; McMillan won by only eight votes in 2012 after a vote recount was conducted.

McMillan’s website says that the state “cannot sustain a regulatory and tax environment that strangles business and entrepreneurship,” and that “taxes must be low and simple as possible while generating only the amount of revenue the state needs to provide critical government services and operations.”

On the economy, Ferrary said in a Journal questionnaire that she “would prioritize our tax dollars being used effectively and efficiently” by reserving “a greater percentage of our permanent funds for investments that would grow our tax base” and investing “in high-value growing industries such as film, health care and renewable energy.”

Senate District 36

Jeff Steinborn, the southern New Mexico director for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, is challenging Republican incumbent Lee Cotter in Senate District 36.

Cotter is a local builder and was elected to the Senate in 2012. He did not respond to Journal requests for an interview, nor did he respond to a Journal questionnaire sent to legislative candidates. Regarding the economy, Cotter says on his website that he is for lowering taxes, simplifying the tax code and passing right-to-work legislation.

The seat was previously held by Mary Jane Garcia, a former Senate Majority whip, for nearly 20 years.

“It’s a Democratic-leaning seat,” said Steinborn, who has served four two-year terms in the House. “It was made slightly less Democratic in the last redistricting. All things being equal, there is an advantage in this race for the Democrat.”

“The highest priority in our community is jobs, and what we’re doing to create better economic development and what’s going on with education is a huge level of interest,” Steinborn said.

Steinborn’s proposals to improve the state’s economy are “to strengthen and improve our education system and to focus on industries and jobs that play to New Mexico’s strengths,” he said in response to the candidate questionnaire.

Journal Capitol Bureau chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.